As I’ve said before, everyone can be a hero. One way to achieve that is by volunteering. After being introduced to an amazing cause, Room to Read, I decided to sit down with one of the Austin Chapter organizers, Sherrie Nguyen to learn more about Room to Read, how we can help this amazing cause, and her experience as a volunteer.

Diaz: How did Room to Read get started?

Nguyen: Room to Read began with a simple phrase: Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books. John Wood, a former executive at Microsoft, was trekking the Himalayas contemplating his current life when he was introduced to a school in Kathmandu with a library that housed no books. When he asked how he could help and heard the headmaster’s response, John was moved to action and has never looked back. He began an email campaign that was heard around the world and returned a year later transporting thousands of books on donkeys and was welcomed with the smiling faces of eager children. Room to Read was born in 2000 and in 10 short years has impacted nearly 5 million children in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Diaz: What is the mission of Room to Read?

Nguyen: Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Working in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments, we develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and support girls to complete secondary school with the relevant life skills to succeed in school and beyond.

Diaz: What is the biggest challenge your organization has faced (can be for just the chapter or as a whole)?

Nguyen: The Austin chapter was founded in 2008 by volunteers who heard John’s story and answered his call for action. We have grown tremendously over the past year in terms of brand recognition and awareness in the Austin community. However, our biggest challenge is this market is saturated with local and global non-profits, and while the community is ranked high in the nation for volunteering and donating time, Austin is also ranked low among other states for financial giving. Since the Room to Read chapter networks drive 1/3 of the operating budget each year for Room to Read through zero-cost events, this poses a challenge for fundraising in Austin.

Diaz: What has been the greatest success (same as above)?

Nguyen: At the same time, we receive a ton of support from the Austin community in helping to promote our cause through in-kind donations. Momo’s donated their venue for our Room to Rock music showcase, Clay Pit and Thanh Nhi host country-themed dinners for us annually, and Lavaca Street Bar and Dolce Vita are participants in our Beers for Books programs ($1 for every beer purchased, buys 1 book for a child in need).

Diaz: What made you get involved with the program?

Nguyen: I got involved with Room to Read after reading John’s book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. Because of John’s experience, Room to Read operates like a business, running lean on overhead and constantly innovating to scale quickly. In fact, after the first few years of operation, Room to Read was building schools and libraries faster than Starbucks were appearing on our street corners. I support Room to Read because I believe in the mission, and I see the impact of our work.

Diaz: What has your personal experience with the organization been thus far?

Nguyen: My times with Room to Read over the past few years can be described in so many words – fun, inspiring, rewarding, and valuable. I’ve met John and Erin, Room to Read’s CEO, several times and am extremely confident in their vision and leadership. I stepped in to the role of Chapter Leader for Austin last year because like other volunteers, I have Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) and am a firm believe that we are creating disruptive change in the world. I am driven by the leaders of our 40+ chapters all over the world each year when we reunite in San Francisco for our Chapter Leader Conference, and I am traveling to India this December to see our work first-hand. It’s the wonderful people that make Room to Read so great and keep me working this night job with a smile on my face.

Diaz: How can others help?

Nguyen: A little bit of money goes a long way in the developing world. You can choose to sponsor a project, such as building a school/library, sponsoring a girls’ scholarship, or publishing a local language book through donations at http://www.roomtoread.org/donate. Each community matches monetary donations in the form of their own money, sweat equity, or building materials/land. This makes our projects sustainable by the communities and government. The Austin chapter is also always looking for volunteers to either join our core team or to work our events. You can find more information and contact us here: http://www.roomtoread.org/austin.

Diaz: What would you tell someone who is on the fence about becoming a volunteer?

Nguyen: It’s up to you how much time and effort you want to contribute. All of our chapter leaders work full time jobs and have busy lives outside Room to Read, but we come together with the common belief that we are creating world change. We are happy to receive as little or as much time as you are able to give and always welcome you with smiling faces! Attend one of our upcoming happy hours (last Thursday of every month) and get to know our team. We’d be so thrilled to meet you, and we always promise fun!

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